Two months ago, West Side residents packed the City Council chambers to plead for a stronger anti-gang loitering ordinance to “take back” neighborhood streets overrun with gangbangers, drug dealers and prostitutes.
They described children forced to walk past scantily clothed women on their way to school and witness sex acts in progress in broad daylight. They talked about kids finding used condoms on the street and playing with them after mistaking them for balloons.
On Friday, they finally got some measure of relief.
At the behest of West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety agreed to start by outlawing “prostitution-related loitering.”
The ordinance would empower Chicago Police to designate areas of the city where hookers could be ordered to disperse for an eight-hour period.
Ervin called it a first step toward an even broader anti-gang loitering ordinance to replace the one overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 20 years ago.
Instead of “treating everyone the same,” the substitute ordinance reduces penalties against prostitutes and brings the hammer down on those doing the buying and pimping — with hefty fines, jail time and vehicle seizure.
If women can prove they were coerced into human trafficking, that would be an “affirmative defense,” Ervin said.
“It’s an issue of supply and demand. We’re trying to focus on the demand side of the equation. If no one is there to purchase the service, the supply side has to move elsewhere,” Ervin said.
Tina Skahill, deputy general counsel for the Chicago Police Department, said “enforcement against prostitution is not the primary goal.” Counseling and diversion programs that help prostitutes change their lives is the focus.
“We recognize — even if a woman is not coerced — that prostitution is still not necessarily a voluntary choice,” Skahill said.
“We also recognize that excessive fines and penalties run the risk of forcing women into a vicious cycle, forcing them to return to prostitution to pay the fines, thereby running the risk of new arrests and additional fines.”
Although West Side residents were hoping for an even broader anti-gang loitering ordinance, the narrow relief they got can’t come soon enough for Kathy Allison, executive director of United for Better Living.
Allison’s organization runs after-school programs and is starting up its day camp Monday. But she’s afraid to bring the kids outside to play in her large lot for fear of what they will see.
“Prostitutes come by. They’re fighting for territory. They’re scantily clothed….The children understand what’s going on,” Allison said.
“I’ve actually caught prostitutes having their sex on the outside of the building. That’s very disgusting.”
Allison noted that her organization is located near Washington and Kenton, and Kenton is a “thoroughfare” for trucks.
“I’ve seen the trucks pick up the girls and drop them back off. Sometimes, I’ve seen them kicked off the truck,” Allison said.
“We’re trying to raise standards and it’s kind of hard to explain what these ladies are doing…It has to stop. We are starting Monday morning 8 o’clock about 80 kids. And it’s gonna be nice outside. We’d like to see that corner clean and safe once more.”
A resident of the 4400 block of West Congress Parkway, who identified himself only as “Mr. Taylor,” said his block has been overtaken by “four or five Caucasian prostitutes who came from the suburbs.”
They take over an abandoned building, hang around a gas station and liquor store to pick up their customers and support the local drug dealers, he said.
“If we can get rid of the prostitution situation, we can curb the drug sales and we can also curb the people coming from the suburbs getting off at Kostner, coming down our block, buying drugs, buying prostitution and going back home to their comfortable suburban residences,” Taylor said.
Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, could not be reached for comment on the revised version teed up for full Council approval next week.
When the original version was introduced, Yohnka argued that the “vague” language in Ervin’s ordinance would only “encourage police to order people to disperse or even arrest them for what may be innocent and constitutionally protected behavior.”
He noted then that a similar ordinance in New York “has resulted in people being arrested based on how the person is dressed, where they are standing/walking, whether they are carrying money, and who they are associating with or talking to.”
“That doesn’t help anything,” Yohnka said.